John Marsden



When the cockies spread their wings and float from one branch to another they hang for a moment, like they’re caught in an eddy of air. Then they choose their landing pad and settle, with a squawk and a shrug of their shoulders. They go for a strut along the branch, their yellow crests flaring. If they had hands they’d beat their chests. They’re pretty smug. You can chase them off a fruit tree or a barley crop or the back of a wheat truck but you never defeat them: they’re the birds of defiance.

Against an overcast sky it’s shocking to see how white they are. They’re the whitest things in the world, not that there’s ever been a World Cup for whiteness. Not as far as I know.

We were moving a mob of cattle along a dirt road in the bush, over the ford where the winter water flows, through the gum trees, underneath the cockatoos screeching the neighbourhood news.

It was a big mob, three hundred head, cows and steers, and there were some big beasts among them. But they were in no hurry. I had plenty of time to look up at the cockies.

On the left was Mr Farrar’s place, where his fat black cattle grazed. I dribbled with love and envy every time I saw his main paddock. It was protected by lines of old manna gums, had a bit of a hill in the far corner, and the creek was its western boundary. I’ve never seen that creek dry up and I’ve never seen that paddock bare. The grass grew like it was showing off. You could run a hundred head in that paddock and not need to go near them from one year to the next, except to take their photographs for centrefolds in cattle magazines. In the whole district this was my favourite paddock.

Mr Farrar’s bull waddled to the fence to check out the passing talent. He had a body the size of a furniture van and balls the size of truck tyres. All the sluts in the mob wanted to have a chat. I could imagine the conversation. ‘Nice bit of rump steak on you, sweetheart.’ Well, thank you. You doing anything tonight?’ Why wait till tonight? Just jump this barbed wire and I’m yours.’ ‘Oh yes, the barbed wire. We could have a problem with the barbed wire…’

Then this annoying human comes up on a noisy Suzuki and kicks out at the lady’s attractive ass and yells something like, ‘Come on you old bag of hamburger meat…’ and romance dies.

The annoying human was Alastair Young, helped by me banging my hand on the side of the ute or yelling or, in extreme cases, stopping the ute and getting out to flush a steer from a thicket of young trees and blackberries. The cattle belonged to Alastair’s father, who was in his ute at the front of the mob. Keeping them moving was Alastair’s sister, Shannon, on horseback, and Gavin, the little guy who lives with me. Gavin had our Yamaha. Mr Young had his dogs and I had Marmie, but I kept her in the cab of the ute most of the time.

The main thing was to stop the stock spreading out over too great a distance, but it wasn’t difficult. They were pretty well-behaved. We’d have to work a bit when we got them to the main road, where there’d be traffic, but no-one used this road much. I could just poke along, sneaking up behind Alastair and bumping his bike with the ute when he was distracted by a noisy cow, chatting to Shannon for a minute when she came back to get a drink, waving to Gavin in the distance.

Gavin must have been in a good mood. He waved back and gave me a huge smile. Normally if I made any contact with him in public he looked at me like I was a demented stranger suffering from impaired vision. We were all skipping school, and for Gavin that was a good start to any day; besides, he had taken to life on the land like he was born wearing a Drizabone and an Akubra. For him this was better than a trip to Disneyland. Well, OK, maybe not a trip to Disneyland, but it was the kind of stuff he loved to do.

How strange his life had been already, and how unpredictable. From the little I’d learnt about him, he’d been brought up in a pretty crappy suburb in a pretty crappy family, no dad, just a stepdad who he’d mentioned once and then stopped with an expression like he’d bitten into an unripe olive.

Then he had survived a war, firstly by living like a rat in the ruins of Stratton, then by getting picked up by my friends and me and taken to a valley in the bush, and if that wasn’t enough, gatecrashing our guerrilla campaign when he refused to catch a rescue helicopter to New Zealand. After the war no trace of his family could be found, so he moved in with me and my parents.

And just when his life was starting to settle a bit, he and I were hit by an event so awful I couldn’t even think about it that moist winter morning, as we moved the cattle from the Youngs’ place to ours.

It’s no good though. When you decide you won’t think about something you can think of nothing else. It’s like Tolstoy’s brothers telling him that the secrets of the universe would be revealed if he stood in the corner of the room without thinking of a white horse. As I tried not to think about the death of my parents the mist moistened my face. The cockies suddenly sounded like they were a kilometre away and their squawks became desperate and savage.

Where does the salt in tears come from? Do we have little salt mines behind our eyes? Does the body somehow extract it from Vegemite and pump it from the mouthful of toast in your tummy, up to the head, storing it for future use? Tasting a tear as it trickled down my cheek I wondered about that. Fi had said to me just the other day, on the phone, ‘You seem to have a fit of sadness suddenly, and after a while it goes and you’re back to normal until the next one.’

‘Is that strange? What do other people do?’

‘I think they’re probably depressed all the time for a while and then they gradually start to improve again.’

‘Oh, OK.’

‘What does that mean? Are you offended?’

‘Oh no, not at all. I was just thinking about it and wondering if you were right.’

But privately I thought I had both kinds of sadness.

I stopped the ute and went back for a cow I hadn’t noticed, a little red scrubber who’d found a yummy patch of herbivorous matter in a dip beside a fence. I swatted at her and she took off with a clumsy stumble of the front legs, lurching up the slope.

We were using the Youngs’ walkie-talkies and as I got back to the ute Mr Young called me up. It was a relief to hear his voice after the endless swearing of the truckies. No matter what channel you used on the walkie-talkies, you got the endless swearing of the truckies.

‘We’re just coming up to the bitumen, Ellie. How are you going back there?’

‘The last ones are…’ I looked around for a landmark. I’d nearly said, ‘At the ute,’ which wouldn’t have helped much. ‘Near that old windmill on the Farrar place.’

‘OK, that’s pretty good. Shannon and Gavin and I’ll hold them here till you bring them up. I don’t like this moisture though. It’ll make the road slippery, and some of these trucks are flying.’

Alastair and I started to push a bit now, leaving the cockatoos behind. When we caught up with the others Mr Young gave me the signs to put out on the road. They were hand-painted, just two words, Slow Stock, a bit ambiguous I thought but I didn’t think Mr Young would appreciate a lecture about punctuation.

As well as encouraging semitrailers not to plough into the mob at a hundred k’s an hour, my other job was to shut the gates. Each driveway or paddock got its gate shut, to stop the cattle wandering into places they shouldn’t go. You just hoped people didn’t want to get out of their own driveways while we were going past.

There was plenty of feed here to keep the mob happy, and a rest would do them good. They’d already come eight kilometres.

When we started off again the atmosphere was totally different. Now we were out on the Wirrawee-Holloway Road, and we needed to move these beasts along. I went in front, still driving the ute, then came Shannon on her horse and Gavin on the Yamaha, keeping the stock off the road, then Alastair opening the gates again, and finally Mr Young bringing up the rear, driving like me, slow and flashing, hazard lights going with that monotonous, annoying, loud tick-tock that could give you a headache if you listened for long enough.

I didn’t feel like having a headache though. It was too good a day, even if it was flavoured with sadness.

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